Parliamentary Committees and Public Enquiries
The Committee on Standards has released a report on the conduct of Rt Hon Rishi Sunak MP
This report arises from an investigation by the Parliamentary Commissioner for Standards into whether Mr Sunak had breached paragraph 13 of the 2023 Code of Conduct for Members, relating to the confidentiality of the Commissioner's investigations. This arose in the context of an earlier investigation by the Commissioner into whether Mr Sunak had breached paragraph 6 of the Code, relating to declaration of interests. That investigation was concluded through the rectification process, by agreement with Mr Sunak.
UK Parliament/Elspeth Keep
This report relates solely to the issue of the confidentiality of the Commissioner's investigation; however, the Committee notes that both the issue of declaration of interests, which was subject to rectification, and the statements made by No. 10 in this case, indicate a confusion between the obligations under the Ministerial Code and the obligations on Members (including those who are Ministers) under the House's Code. This is a matter to which the Committee intends to return as part of its inquiry into the House of Commons standards landscape.
The Commissioner has supplied the Committee with a memorandum relating to the issue of confidentiality, which the Committee has published as an Appendix to this report.
Mr Sunak has provided further written evidence which the Committee has also published as an Appendix to this report.
Full details of the Commissioner’s inquiry and his opinion are set out in his memorandum which can be found here.
The committee concludes that the breach of confidentiality was inadvertent, and that Mr Sunak has acknowledged this, so the Committee does not recommend any sanction.
The Commissioner opened his original investigation into Mr Sunak on 28 March 2023 after a complaint was made that, during an oral evidence session held before the Liaison Committee on 28 March 2023, he failed to declare a relevant interest.
Mr Sunak wrote to the Chair of the Liaison Committee on 4 April 2023 concerning his declaration of interest. This letter was published by that Committee on 5 April 2023. Mr Sunak subsequently deposited a copy of the letter in the House of Commons Library.
On the afternoon of 14 April, the Guardian newspaper published an article which included a confirmation from No 10, that the Commissioner’s investigation related to his links to a childcare firm in which his wife is an investor.
This was followed by articles from various media outlets which referred to similar information that was confirmed either by No. 10 or by Mr Sunak's spokesperson. In addition, some articles included a quote from a No. 10 spokesperson stating "We are happy to assist the Commissioner to clarify how this has been transparently declared as a ministerial interest".
On 20 April 2023, the Commissioner wrote to Mr Sunak to inform him that he would be extending his inquiry to consider a breach of confidentiality under paragraph 13 of the Code of Conduct.
The Commissioner’s opinion
The Commissioner has given his opinion that, based on the evidence he received, Mr Sunak's team gave a statement to media outlets which contained details of the ongoing investigation and therefore breached Rule 13 of the Code of Conduct.
The Commissioner drew the Committee’s attention to the following points:
- The fact that the Commissioner's letter to Members, and the Procedural Protocol which is provided to Members at the outset of an investigation, make clear the requirements of confidentiality.
- The fact that the Code places an obligation on Members to "not disclose details in relation to: (i) any investigation by the Parliamentary Commissioner for Standards except when required by law to do so, or authorised by the Commissioner."
The Commissioner also noted that:
- Mr Sunak indicated that "with hindsight, he would have made arrangements to restrict the disclosure of information by his office on his behalf."
- Mr Sunak co-operated fully with the Commissioner throughout his investigation.
- His opinion that the breach of confidentiality did not materially affect his investigation into the matter of the declaration of interest.
- His opinion that he has no reason to disbelieve Mr Sunak's assertion that the disclosures to the media were an inadvertent breach of the Code.
Mr Sunak’s position
Mr Sunak stated in his initial response to the Commissioner, on the issue of confidentiality, that "there is a distinction between the disclosure of details of a Commissioner's investigation, and the mere confirmation, in the response to questions of information already in the public domain", and that his office had only confirmed matters already in the public domain, including statements made during the Liaison Committee hearing and his letter to the Chair of the Liaison Committee.
However, in his letter to the Commissioner of 27 July 2023, Mr Sunak asked the Commissioner to include the breach of confidentiality within the rectification process. Rectification is only available where a Member accepts the Commissioner's opinion that they have breached the Code: in doing so, Mr Sunak implicitly accepted that he had breached the Code in respect of the confidentiality requirements.
In his written evidence to the Committee, Mr Sunak repeated his initial statement that there is a distinction between the confirmation of information already in the public domain and the disclosure of confidential information relating to an investigation, implying that the information provided by his team was not a "clear cut" breach of paragraph 13.
Mr Sunak reflected at the end of his written evidence that "with hindsight, I would also have informed my office not to confirm the subject matter of the inquiry in response to questioning", but does not state that he agrees that he has breached the Code.
The Committee’s findings
The Committee notes Mr Sunak's argument that there is a distinction between confirming information already in the public domain, and the disclosure of further details. It was a matter of public record only that the Commissioner was investigating a possible breach of the rule on declaration of interests. The No. 10 spokesperson confirmed publicly that the subject matter of this inquiry related to a childcare firm in which Mr Sunak's wife was an investor—although the Committee appreciates that this could reasonably have been inferred from other material in the public domain at the time.
As the Commissioner observes, however, the No. 10 spokesperson also indicated how Mr Sunak intended initially to respond to the allegations, namely, by holding that declaration in the House was unnecessary because the interest had been declared as a Ministerial interest. This should properly have remained confidential.
The Committee appreciates that Members holding senior Government office will not personally authorise all the communications that go out in their name. They are nonetheless responsible for actions done in their name, and for ensuring that those with whom they properly share details of an investigation are also aware of the confidentiality requirements. Mr Sunak has rightly taken responsibility for the statements to the media by the No. 10 spokesperson.
The statements to the press by the No. 10 spokesperson went beyond what could already be inferred from information properly in the public domain, by indicating how Mr Sunak intended initially to respond to the Commissioner. Mr Sunak has rightly taken responsibility for this disclosure, which breached paragraph 13 of the Code, on confidentiality of investigations. The Committee considers this, however, to be a minor and inadvertent breach of the Code.
The Committee’s conclusion is as follows:
This was a minor and inadvertent breach of the Code. Mr Sunak’s staff should not have issued any statement about the details of the case under investigation, without the approval of the Parliamentary Commissioner for Standards. The Commissioner has made clear that it had no impact on his inquiry. Nevertheless, it constitutes a breach that should not have occurred.
However, Mr Sunak acknowledges that with hindsight he would have followed a different course of action.
The Committee would remind the Prime Minister, and all Ministers, like all other MPs, that it is their responsibility, as individuals, to ensure that such breaches do not occur.
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